21 Jun 2022

Screen time in schools under the spotlight

From Afternoons, 1:20 pm on 21 June 2022

New Zealand classrooms have some of the highest computer usage in the world, and while they can be amazing tools for learning, there may be downsides we need to be aware of.

While working as a paediatric physiotherapist in hospitals, post-graduate health science student Julie Cullen says she noticed clinicians raising concerns about children and high screen use.

“At the same time, we were seeing more and more device use at younger and younger ages starting to take place in the classroom, with parents asked to buy reasonably young children personal devices to learn on and take home.”

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Photo: Unsplash / Thomas Park

So a couple of years ago, she decided to start up a website where parents could access the research available and to promote discussion.

“The current evidence that’s emerging is really suggesting that some use of devices can actually be helpful both for education, and health and wellbeing - particularly for teenagers,” Cullen tells Jesse Mulligan.

“It’s excessive use that can come with more adverse outcomes and risks.

“It is a complex topic because all screen use isn’t equal, but while some of the risks do relate to what’s on the screen, others are just about time spent on screens, or what screen use displaces.”

Some clinicians’ concerns relate to vision, she says, particularly for developing children and adolescents whose eyes are still growing.

“So as an example, dry eye disease has been directly associated with screen use. It also has what we call a dose-dependent relationship in children so the more hours spent on screen, the more they report the symptoms.

“When we use screens, research shows, people blink less frequently and also incompletely, and they think that’s why screen use may be related to dry eye.

“There’s also myopia, which is shortsightedness (where your eyeball lengthens), That’s been associated with screen use too, and it’s thought to occur due to more time being spent doing close up visual tasks that usually occur indoors.”

Researchers found myopia did progress significantly over lockdowns, she says.

“Ophthalmologists suggest that reducing screen use and increasing outdoor time is a recommendation that they believe can slow that progression.”

It’s important to bear in mind that more research is needed to assemble long-term and conclusive data on these impacts, she says. But we’re not going to have that data for some time.  

“That’s exactly my concern and why we’ve built this website – is that we don’t find out in 10 to 20 years that there has been harm occurring when actually balanced use could achieve a positive impact .”

Beyond the physical impacts, Cullen says there is also research going into how screen use affects cognition and brain function. There a number of areas of risk to the health of young people, and more information can be found on the website.

She notes a recent Ministry of Education report, observing 2018 data on 15 year olds in Aotearoa, found there was some potential benefits for device use in class, especially when it comes to using the internet to research information, but in general increased use was associated with reduced outcomes.

“When teachers are using devices, that’s associated with positive learning outcomes and also when teachers are using devices with children.

“But when kids start using them on their own, it looks like generally the outcomes are lower, except for maths, where unless the teacher is using the device, that data showed that outcomes were just generally lower completely.

“Also in terms of what tasks to use them for, particularly in primary school, using devices to learn to read seems to have lower success rates than if students are mostly using traditional methods." 

In a report, the ministry also recommends cautious, well-researched, and purposeful use of devices.

Cullen agreed, saying it would be important to get guidance on how to use devices positively because these technologies were just a normal part of life now for children.